The witty Tim Miller, communications director for the Our Principles PAC, tweets, “If your 2020 litmus test is: Did you stand up [for] conservative values in face of an orange demagogic GOP takeover, the field is rather small.” That is an interesting dividing line. Who would that leave? And who would make the grade? (For this purpose, I leave out the long list of “journalists” who sold their souls to root for Donald Trump and the ones in the conservative punditocracy who did not. That eye-opening division deserves its own discussion.)
First, we can take off the prospective 2020 list (and leave out the successor to the Republican Party in the wake of Donald Trump) those who actively enabled Trump. The worst of the worst in this regard are New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). Whether sheer opportunism and infatuation with fame (Christie) or irrational fixation on stopping immigration (Sessions) was their motive, these two have given Trump cover, cooing over his pronouncements and ignoring his lies and inanities. Their families should hope these two were smart enough to secure generous spots in the Trump organization later on, given that their political credibility is now shredded.
Then there are the people who actively discourage principled opposition to Trump: Reince Priebus and Florida Gov. Rick Scott (“If the anti-Trump groups don’t stop now, their efforts will be nothing more than a contribution to the Clinton campaign.”) Dutiful marionettes, they parrot the line that anyone who is the party’s nominee deserves unswerving loyalty, even if it means abandonment of principle.
Next are the shameless apologists, those who know better but give Trump a veneer of respectability. Topping that list would be Newt Gingrich, who went so far as to praise that fact-free mess of a foreign policy speech yesterday. (The ex-speaker, ex-lobbyist, millionaire insider has the nerve to deride “elites” who failed to grasp Trump’s speech.)
The next category would be those who lacked the nerve to speak up when it might have mattered. Currently that group includes Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who remains mute on an endorsement, fearing any ill effect on his own reelection. You can add in those Republicans in the Senate who might actually help Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) but who will not support him based on anger, resentment and personal disdain. We understand and empathize with those emotions. Cruz was a dreadful colleague and rank opportunist; but conservatives are, as Carly Fiorina put it, fighting for the “soul” of their party and the country. Get over it.
Finally, there is Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose monumental ego and refusal to give up the spotlight made it that much more difficult for Cruz to consolidate the anti-Trump vote. He put personal ambition above party and country (unlike Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and others who quickly and gracefully exited). Yes, Cruz is a less-than-ideal candidate, but since Kasich loves quoting the Bible, we would say, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind.” (Leviticus 19:14)
By contrast, many Republicans have displayed courage, decency and solid judgment. These certainly should rise in the estimation of principled Republicans. These are figures who went the extra mile, put aside feelings about Cruz and urged the party to stand up to Trump. Fiorina obviously fits on that list. (Extra points for not conceding that at the end of the day she would vote for Trump.) Walker helped turn out the Wisconsin vote when it mattered most. Sen Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has been a clear voice for anti-Trumpism and a reminder that party loyalty is not the highest goal. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) gets kudos for showing how one can put past grievances aside to support Cruz against a much worse figure, Trump. He continues to weigh in on Trump’s foreign policy lunacy. (Conservatives who dislike Graham for his views on various topics should note that while other self-proclaimed purists fell in line behind Trump, Graham fought him tooth and nail.) And despite a highly competitive race in a purple state, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) also supported the most viable not-Trump candidate (first endorsing Sen. Marco Rubio, and after he dropped out, saying he voted for Cruz).
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is a more difficult case. On one hand, he has not said he would support a third candidate. He will continue, he says, to support the nominee. That surely is not helpful to the #NeverTrump forces, but he is also speaker and the convention chair, giving him obligations others do not have. (Strategically it also may give him credibility as a kingmaker, if not the king, in a contested convention.) But outweighing that, we would say, is his consistent defense of a not-Trump, truly conservative, reform agenda. He is working furiously to separate his colleagues from the mumbo jumbo Trump spews, a mix of nationalism, authoritarianism and nativism. (Just yesterday Ryan was at Georgetown University preaching the gospel of constructive governance and opportunity. “If we do not like the direction our country is going — and we do not —t hen we owe the country an alternative. We owe it to you.”) Moreover, at key times he has weighed in to condemn Trump’s remarks or behavior, often when the spineless Priebus did not.
Surely I have left some out of both categories, but I provided a preliminary answer to the question conservatives will in fact be asking right after the 2016 election (not even waiting until 2020): Who defended the soul of the party and the country from Trump?